Monday, October 31, 2011

Will the Hall Call or Was LaRussa a Juice-a?

Just 17 home runs shy of 600—still the rarefied realm of only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays in 2001—and owed $30 million on a contract extension, Mark McGwire received plaudits for limping away from baseball on his own terms. Hindered by bad knees, he still smashed 29 round-trippers in his swansong season, remaining a productive and popular player. Little did we know that McGwire’s exit was a less-than-virtuous getaway from the steroid scandal about to break—a lie that he lived for a decade, until finally confessing last year.

Now Tony LaRussa, still shaking confetti from his tawdry hair, stuns the baseball world by retiring days after his St. Louis Cardinals capture the World Series. A mere 35 managerial wins shy of the legendary John McGraw, LaRussa has carte rouge to rack up as many more victories in Cardinals red as he desires. On the cusp of cementing certified greatness, LaRussa’s retirement smacks of another quick getaway.

So far, no one has asked the question: Did LaRussa juice while managing? Let the numbers decide:

Third all-time in wins, with a whopping 2728, LaRussa piloted 5093 regular-season games over 33 seasons (each of the latter figures second most in baseball annals). In addition to three World Series titles, he won Manager of the Year four times, including the first award, in 1983, and most recently in 2002. That 19-year span of dominance in a major category is equaled only by Roger Clemens’ 18-year bookends between Cy Young Awards—and we all know how Clemens achieved his. Pacing dugouts for 5214 games (including playoffs) means, conservatively, that LaRussa paced for almost 47,000 innings. A younger man might manage such mileage, but half of LaRussa’s managerial career occurred after age fifty. As the oft-recited baseball maxim states: the first thing to go is the legs—so is anyone buying that LaRussa logged so many innings on his feet without artificial help?

Like McGwire and Barry Bonds, whose bodies ballooned during the steroid era, LaRussa began tipping the scales (albeit less dramatically). His 1981 Fleer baseball card, issued three years into his managerial career, listed LaRussa at 185 lb; however, Baseball Almanac currently denotes him at 190 lb. Sure, this shocking transformation of his body could result from weightlifting—as asserted the unrepentant Bonds—but let’s not kid ourselves.

And is not batting the pitcher eighth—an occasional LaRussa strategy—the reasoning of a mind muddled by performance-enhancing chemicals?

On the numbers, LaRussa was a good manager for a long time and deserves Hall of Fame election. But like McGwire and other juicers, should he—if guilty—be made to wait a decade or more? LaRussa's mediocre record as skipper of the Chicago White Sox, which predates the steroid era, is decidedly not Hall of Fame caliber. Only when LaRussa moved to Oakland—where he teamed with McGwire and Jose Canseco, two players at the core of the steroid maelstrom—did he begin amassing the numbers that led LaRussa near the top of career lists and seemingly warrant his induction.

One is left to wonder...

Thus far, no evidence has come to light—and maybe there is none to find. But Mark McGwire once, too, was pure.

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